Using the Sony DSLT cameras as "Hybrid" production tools.

The typical mindset among photographers, when considering cameras, is to always go for ultimate performance, damn the cost. I've been having different ideas lately about video. While I reach for my Sony a99 when I know I'll be locked down on a tripod and needing to record controlled sound, I've found that there's a joy in handholding a camera and shooting with less need for control. I'll explain it like this: In the early 1950's the cameras of the day for "smart" and "professional" photographers were the twin lens, medium format cameras (as a minimum) and various larger format field cameras as a norm. But two photographers reject the idea that the "need" in their imaging was the highest quality they could achieve. They valued a fluid handling and relative discretion above lines of resolution and detail. Both Robert Frank (See: The Americans) and Henri-Cartier Bresson (The Decisive Moment) went out into the streets, honky-tonks, diners and fields of real life to capture the flow of existence in a way that never lent itself to perfect technique.

I'm feeling more and more like that's something I want to do with video.

Recently, in the world of video, I've done interviews with cardiologists and oral surgeons. I've interviewed artistic directors and a National Geographic photographer, and I've created video content for advertising and for giant projection in live theater. In all of those situations I've followed the standard production norms of the day. I shot in 1080p at 60fps. I lit the scenes and the subjects. I used off camera microphones in the proscribed way while monitoring their sound through headphones and riding levels via manual controls. And while this is the proscribed way to make technically good video it can also be a good way to make boring video.

As an antidote to the structured feel of my commercial video work I went out recently with my "non-professional" Sony camera, the a57. You can pick one up right now, as they are being discontinued, for around $500. As far as video goes even the cheapest Sony's are easy to use and produce really good files. The a57 offers settings that even some of the big boys from other companies do not. The two biggest advantages being the electronic viewfinder and the full time, phase detect (fast, very fast) autofocus. What's so great about those two features? Well, a clear and well done EVF means you can view your video shots right through the eye level finder even in the brightest sunlight. That means no more switching to slow-as-molassas live view and then strapping a Zacuto or Hoodman loupe to the rear LCD sreen of your camera. In even the top of the line cameras from Canon and Nikon, once you turn on Live View you can pretty much kiss autofocusing goodbye. The cameras switch over to a contrast detect autofocus mode that's pretty much primitive, not fast and sassy like any number of compact or mirrorless cameras.

If adding on a separate loupe while loosing any sort of focus automation doesn't sound like a deal killer for the hand held use of a video camera then you've probably never tried it. But believe me the Franken-Rig is a sucky way to do something that could be fun----using your camera as a street shooting video rig.

If you need fast focusing you can use the Sony cameras in AF mode but you will be limited to f-stops of f3.5 and faster. If you want full control you can disable AF and then go into any of the other modes: A, S, and M and use the camera almost as you would a still camera.  "Ah-ha!" you might say. If I want control over all the settings I lose AF. Well, that's true but it's hardly as big a deal as it would be on a Canon or Nikon camera because Sony has included a very well done focus peaking feature. It's like having a full screen range finder. As you focus the areas in sharp focus become outlined in a bright color. It's visual and it's relatively foolproof.

You know that I've sung the praises of the EVF for a year or more but this is another situation in which I find it irreplaceable. You see, the project I'm working on for myself: Shooting in the streets and around town in black and white video, is set up so that I'm shooting everything in black and white. But I want to see the subjects in black and white as I'm shooting. That's no problem for a camera with an EVF. I turn the creative function to black and white and the finder shows me black and white. Instant visualization. I'm not longer seduced or distracted by luscious colors or color contrasts. I can concentrate on the movement and the tones.

I've been shooting a lot of material in this fashion. And I've been using the camera overall in a less than ultimate way. I'm forgoing AVCHD MTS2 files and shooting in 1440x1080 mpeg4. It's easier to ingest the clips into any system and to edit it on just about any machine out there. Am I missing large chunks of quality? Not really. In fact, the only thing I'm really giving up is shooting at 60fps. And I'm okay with that. I come back with files that work instantly on the web, on my iPad and they work equally well in Final Cut Pro X. But working more simply means less work and less time spent on the part of video I like less, the back end. The processing and editing.

I'm writing a motion poem of life in my city. Everything from the sway of leaves in the wind to stolen kisses at the bus stop and disaffected  workers sipping coffe and checking (for the millionth time) their text messages on the other side of a Starbuck's window. I'm capturing sound only with the built-in microphones because I know I'll want to overlay a different song to the finished collage. I'm not the only person doing this but it feels different than stalking the streets looking for the still image. It has a different kick for me, a different charm.

Here's how I did it last time. I grabbed my a57 (I chose it instead of the a99 because all the bigger sensors get knocked down to the much smaller video size, ultimate quality of the sensor may only matter at extreme ISO's and probably not at all for black and white....). I put my sharpest lens for that camera on the front, the 16-50mm f2.8 Sony DT. I set the camera to MF. I set the camera to mp4 at 1440x1080.  I set the ISO to 100 unless the light gets low. If the light gets low I try to work at ISO 400. When the light falls apart I stumbled into the nose bleed territory of ISO with no fear.

I know I should be working at 1/50th of a second to match my 24p setting but I don't really give a crap about what I should be doing with the camera. All I care about is how it ends up looking. So instead of messing around with lots of neutral density filters to try and stay at that shutter speed I use whatever shutter speed I want and incorporate the different look into the blender of looks I'm working with for the project. You know what? It doesn't matter.  So, most of the time I'm working outside with the middle apertures and shutter speeds in the 1/125th to 1/250th of a second range. Inside I can lock myself at 1/50th for as long as I've got light and work with wider apertures and higher ISOs. That's the way it's supposed to work.

Purists decry the electronic image stabilization in video but I embrace it. Sony uses the same motion sensors as they would to move the sensor for the still implementation of IS but instead of moving the chip they crop a little bit of the image and compensate for your motion buy electronically moving the frame around. I've looked. It works. And you can see the effect in the EVF. Very cool.

The bottom line is that I'm being thrust into video with my work. It's shoring up the parts of still imaging that we've lost to iPhones and "good enough." Anyone CAN shoot video but it requires more skills to get good sound and good images and even more skills to imagine can capture good content. Hell, sound alone is enough of a barrier for most clients to not want to deal with.

I just figured that I got good at taking stills for business by making photography my hobby and passion as well. I decided that if I'm really going to be any good at video I'd have to immerse myself in the same way. And this time around I decided to ignore the little voices in my head, on the web and elsewhere that chant the mantra, "This is the best practices way! You must do this like everyone else. You must have Red camera. You must have a crew. You must shoot 4:2:2. You must etc."

I want to focus on making the images and telling the story. Not on getting every pixel perfect. We already know how to do that.

So, why do I have an image of a Sony a58 camera on the top of the page? Because I'm buying one on April 21st from Precision Camera to add to my toolbox. It's a 20 megapixel camera, with a state of the art sensor, that comes with a very decent 18-55mm kit lens, and costs only $599. Compared to the a57 I've been using as a general purpose image hammer it improves on the EVF by replacing an LCD based monitor with an OLED version. The new camera keeps most of what I like about the a57 in terms of handling, uniform battery across most of the DSLT product line, microphone in plug, and creative modes. In order to make it less expensive than the camera it replaces it's equipped with a plastic/composite lens mount ring and it loses a bit of buffer for continuous raw file shooting. It's adds the adaptive noise reduction technology introduced in the a99.

I figure that every generation of sensor design yields pretty clear improvements in image quality and I'm sure this will be no exception.

For months I'd been looking at fun carry around cameras like the Sony RX100 and the Fuji x20 but for my uses I couldn't really mould the cost/benefit ratio into a pleasing rationale for letting go of hard won currency. Comparing the a58 to those cameras (and camera design mistakes/mishaps like the Canon EM and the Nikon Coolpix A) the Sony a58 and kit lens is an absolute bargain. A combination of what I expect to be great imager performance with all the video enhancements (EVF, Phase Detect AF, in finder B&W, wide choice of files, microphone input, big enough body to hold comfortably, full use of Sony's entire lens line, ability to use MF Rokinon Cine lenses) makes this a great second camera for Sony pro users, an interesting secondary camera for people interested in a "throw down" street camera with great video chops for people with hobbled Nikon and Canon pro systems and a lot more.

I'll pass my current a57 along to Ben. He'll have two cameras and that's nice since he's doing some documentary projects at school that would benefit from a two camera system. This generation and price range of cameras is very interesting to me. The parallel in the film days was the introduction of the FM and FE cameras to the Nikon camera line of SLRs.  Since the film and lenses were the same as those being used on the flagship cameras the IQ could be identical, the only differentiators were feature sets such as the ruggedness of the bigger bodies and the ability to use faster motors. I think we are at an embarrassing moment for the big cameras manufacturers. With the exception of full frame sensors we've hit the point where the $600 cameras, for all intents and purposes, provide image quality on par with the $6000 cameras, and the $3000 cameras. The differentiators are things that most people are indifferent to such as hard core weather sealing or dense menus full of different auto focus sensor settings.

The hard, cold reality is that there isn't any more barrier at all, in terms of imaging parameters that most people use, between the entry level cameras and the most expensive cameras from the same companies. Sure, the Nikon D800 or Sony a99 might resolve a bit more detail at higher ISO's or at giant enlargement sizes but for mainstream video (not uncompressed video into HDMI recorders) and mainstream work, even professional work, you'll be very hard pressed to see any sort of difference. And that means we really do need to showcase our creativity and ideas rather than work on technical stuff.

A young photographer entering the market today, doing web video, head shots, events and other day to day work, as well as more creative imaging could be well served with a couple of bodies like the a58 and a couple inexpensive but very good lenses. The kit lens for the standard focal lengths, the 55-200mm DT lens for the longer end and one of many superwide zooms for the wide angles. Those could form the basis of a professional capable camera kit with a flash thrown in, for far less than $2,000. Small and light but packed with a lot of crossover tools that would allow a photographer/videographer to do good, sellable work. Nice.

It's hard to over-emphasize how much of a game changer Sony's cameras are. Even if they shoot themselves in both feet with bad marketing they've given us a taste of how good a cheap, hybrid still & video camera can be and how usable the EVF makes the camera. Once consumers experience shooting video with a well sorted tool like the a58 they'll demand the same kind of performance from whatever brand they'd like to support. The writing is on the wall for Canon and Nikon and they'd better take notice. It's all coming quicker than they think.


Dave said...

I do find these very interesting and have eyed SOny since the A900 emerged. The trouble I always come down to is with the lens line up. Being on Nikon DX its not like they're hitting the lens selection of the park but its closer to my wants than Sony has been up to this point. Olympus on the other hand pushes out lenses that make me cry with longing, but at this point I've been sticking to my 12 step program not to relapse into M43.

That really is a nice price for all the capabilities of the A57, and throwing in their nice 16-50mm is still cheaper than the Oly OMD with the kit lens.

Kirk Tuck said...

Sony has an interesting assortment of lenses for the APS-C cameras. The 16-50mm is great. Hard to beat in any system. The DT 35mm, 50mm and 85mm are really well done: sharp and cheap. I'm frankly shocked at how good the 55-200mm is for under $200. But if you want to be a lens snob you can use all of the Zeiss lenses on the APS-C cameras as well. The weak point in the Sony cropped frame line up is in wide and extreme wide angle zooms and primes. Thank goodness I spend more time at the long end where everything is pretty darn good.

Dave said...

Actually you hit the only real objection I might have, aside from imagined fears of change. I've come to love shooting with the 11-16mm Tokina on my D7000. For features (especially video) and raw value the A57 stands out above the D7000, but might give up a few points on stills. If Sony had Oly's lens line up it would be a no brainer. The focal lengths you outlined a dead on where I shoot most of the time. That A77 with ISO 50 is quite tempting since it would give me more flexibility in the studio. Sigh.

Frank Grygier said...

Can't wait to see the poem.

Paul Gero said...

Kirk...thanks for this article...I have felt exactly as you...that the ability of these cameras to help you keep a low profile would be perfect for adapting a still photographers mindset to video...

I didn't realize the a58 is coming out...but wow...what a killer price...BTW...just saw an A99 at Samys today for the first time...what a terrific camera...I'm convinced that mirrorless is going to rule in five years or less....and this is a very exciting time to be a shooter...


Anonymous said...

Keep your receipt handy Kirk the A58 might be going back quickly!
It's got a nasty all plastic lens mount, has a downgraded LCD half the res of the A57, the buffer is scary small a mere 6 shots raw and 7 jpegs...that's worse than cameras 5 years or older. Sure a few extra bits tethering, better bracketing, OLED VF, 20mp sensor looks no better than the 16mp one if not a little worse at high ISO. It might have worked in the A77 though which is really noisy at high ISO

A58 is really a downgraded A57 and a really bad move from Sony

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Anonymous, you don't sound like you're a fan of the new a58. Canon put a plastic lens flange in the original film Rebel and despite the fear of the expert hordes no problems ever surfaced. Hell, all our cars are more plastic than metal now and it doesn't seem to affect them. Yes. The buffer is small. You'll want to shoot slower. Yes, it now tethers. Yes, it has better bracketing. Yes, it has a new and improved OLED VF which is what you should be looking at when you photograph anyway, the screen on the back is really just for menu adjustments. No one cares if it's higher or lower res. Just tell yourself: "I'm supposed to focus and compose while looking through an EVF or other eye level viewfinder as the camera designers and Photo gods intended. Anything else is silly and irrational. According to DXO more pixels do make for less noise and better imaging characteristics. You're still using info that's no longer in style in your assessment of the IQ. At $600 with a lens this camera would have beat the living crap out of $8000 cameras just a few years ago. Consumers will love it. I'll like it. It's not a professional camera body. Stop judging it like one. And....I'm gonna bet that buffer beat the crap out of the buffer in all the pricy little compact cameras too.

A very good move from Sony. Try one. You might like it. What if the sensor is incredible and gets rated a 99 by DXO? I bet you'll be embarrassed then.....

Finally, Precision Camera, my local bricks and mortar store, will be selling the camera for the same amount as Amazon.com and they offer a thirty day return policy. No stress.

Anonymous said...

I know you hate to do gear reviews, but please let us know what you think about the camera. If it is "just the thing" as a all-around camera, then I may sell off my NEX 6. I like the feel of the NEX6, but I am losing way too many shots to missed focus.


Dave H.

Kirk Tuck said...

Will do. I got a call from my local camera store today. The cameras have already arrived.

Anonymous said...

Kirk I think you miss my point. We already have the A57 right now, and bar a few bits the A58 is a step backwards from that. I think very few A57 users would trade that body for an A58.

Sure the price isn't bad, and will get cheaper. But right now I can't see this wiping out Canikon. The EVF is nice to some of us, but to others they are not convinced. All the samples I've seen so far on the A58 show it's not a leap in performance IQ wise over the A57.

Personally with such good deals on the A57 right now I'd take a look at that first. 6 shot raw buffer might be ok for some, but the A57 had a 20 shot buffer (or near there) very nice high res back LCD too. I just hope we get a real A57 update from Sony this is more an A37 update in my view. Still have no time for that all plastic mount though, no maker has released a DSLR with that ever, only the ultra cheap 35mm AF bodies dared to tread there.

Kirk Tuck said...

I don't think I missed your point I think some things are more important to me and some things are more important to you and our lists of priorities does not match. You think the EVF is not a big deal. I am convinced that a bright, clear viewfinder images is one of the top things that makes a camera fun to use. You think a high res LCD is vital. I compose, correctly, with the EVF and consider LCDs as just panels on which to adjust menus. You seem to think that an entry level camera at a price $200 lower than the camera it replaces should show "a leap in performance IQ wise" over its predecessor while I think ALL cameras introduced these days show only incremental IQ increases. I'm happy if the a58 has 4 million more pixels, wider dynamic range and lower noise, even if we aren't talking huge leaps.

While I'd rather have a bigger buffer on this camera I do have a99's with much bigger buffers and if I need to shoot fast I can use these cameras all day long. I'd rather talk about the a58 in the context of its competitors and among the m4:3, mirrorless and high end compacts, it has a great buffer, the best AF and lots and lots of useful features.

For me, and most of the people who read this blog the a58 is not a primary/only camera but a good carry along, have at your side all the time, not afraid of breaking it because it's cheap enough to replace, camera.

I think you may have missed the point of the exercise. Not a replacement for your Nikon D4. Perhaps an alternate choice to a Nikon D5100, a Canon Rebel or a mirrorless Olympus or Panasonic.

As to the lens mount? Did we stop buying lenses when all the manufacturers switched from making them out of metal to making them out of plastic? Did the plastic bodies and lenses stop taking good images? As long as it works it's a non-issue to me.

Chris Malcolm said...

The Sigma 8-16mm is a very good APS-C wide angle. If I'm carrying more than one lens around in the streets for opportunistic snappery that's always one of them.